In Iowa, the immigration question dogs McCain

"You were here at the beginning of the conversation? I'll repeat it if you would like."

Published March 15, 2007 7:18PM (EDT)

A couple of hundred cubes of free cheddar cheese remained behind after Sen. John McCain left the Ames Quality Inn and Suites in Iowa today. The town hall meeting had been overbooked -- about 25 tables and a couple of hundred chairs in a too-small conference room -- so most of the Republican voters never had a chance to navigate their way to the chili line. But that didn't stop at least one Iowan from dishing it out.

During the town-hall-style question time, Jeff Heiden, an Iraq veteran from Marshalltown, stood to quiz McCain about the broken cattle fence that lines America's southern border. "I want to know on behalf of other veterans why we are not protecting our border at all," he said. "I am very frustrated, sir."

McCain appeared at first a bit miffed by the question. It's not that he thinks immigration isn't an issue for Iowa voters. Hours earlier, at a private morning meeting with Republican state legislators, he had been quizzed about what he would do to solve the immigration problem. The complaints are a constant at Republican gatherings. They are a constant on talk radio in Iowa. As often as not, they are the first thing that Republican activists mention at rallies. But McCain had already tried to address the issue earlier in his speech. "You were here at the beginning of the conversation?" McCain asked his interrogator. "I'll repeat it if you would like."

And then he did.

On the stump, McCain tries to address immigration head-on. He calls it a national security issue. He mentions financial hardships the illegal cross-border traffic causes for his home state of Arizona. He says that employers who hire illegal immigrants must be prosecuted. "We can't give amnesty," he said midway through his stump speech in Ames. "We cannot award illegal behavior."

Those lines got the loudest applause of the afternoon. The problem is that McCain has a different definition of amnesty than many in the Republican Party's activist base do. In the Senate, he has sponsored a popular bill with Democrat Ted Kennedy that would create a process for eventually granting legal status to the millions of illegal immigrants already living in the United States. This echoes a proposal by President Bush. McCain calls it a comprehensive approach. His critics on the right call it amnesty.

After the event, Heiden remained unconvinced. "I was not satisfied," said Heiden, who works in real estate. "I'm frustrated when Sen. McCain and President Bush say that [illegal immigrants] only come to America to do jobs that Americans don't want." Last year, federal agents raided a Swift meatpacking plant in Heiden's hometown, arresting 90 illegal workers. Those jobs, Heiden lamented, were once held by local workers. But he said the jobs no longer pay a living wage. Still, the exchange was not a total loss for McCain. Heiden said the Arizona senator could still get his vote. It was just too early to tell.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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2008 Elections John Mccain R-ariz.